A challenge to the Legislature: Improve on Washington state's blanket primary with Instant Runoff Voting

On Sept. 15, 2003, the Federal Court of Appeals ruled Washington's blanket primary to be unconstitutional, thus striking down our highly popular electoral system that allows voters to select any candidate on the ballot regardless of the voter's party affiliation. Washington legislators, charged with finding an alternative to the blanket primary system, find themselves in a political minefield. In many cases, Democrat and Republican Party bosses are in conflict with their own elected members (many legislators are in office today through the blanket primary), as well as with popular sentiment and the interests of minor parties.

What can pressured lawmakers do?

They can build on the history and tradition of grassroots activism in our state by adopting Instant Runoff Voting as the means for insuring the broadest possible ballot access and democracy.

Stand up to the party bosses

The blanket primary system was created in 1935 as a reform measure to restore voters' privacy rights by wresting control of elections from the stranglehold of party bureaucrats. It permits grassroots candidates to place their names on the ballot under any major party they select, and allows Washington residents to vote without first being forced to declare a party affiliation.

If today's Democrat and Republican party honchos prevail, only candidates chosen through "closed" primaries would appear on the general election ballot. Further, residents will be required to publicly declare a party allegiance before they can vote and will then be restricted to candidates on that party's ticket only.

The rights of minor parties, independent voters and grassroots politicians will be severely curtailed.

Variations on this theme include Montana's "Open Primary, Private Choice" approach or closed party caucuses, both of which are being considered as options in Olympia but should be soundly rejected.

Another option under consideration is the "Louisiana" or "qualifying" primary, which looks like the blanket primary on the surface but, in fact, represents a severe narrowing of polling choices. In this scenario, the top two vote getters, regardless of party affiliation, move on to the general election. The end result? Minor parties would rarely appear on the November ballot and, absurdly, the two candidates in the general election could be from the same party.

Turn voter apathy around

Interest in elections is strengthened by more, not fewer, ballot choices. Minor parties on the ballot enliven public debate by broadening the range of ideas and issues discussed during political campaigns. And this increases the likelihood that those who would not otherwise vote might find a candidate who expresses their views.

Washington fares better than other states in electoral activism due, in part, to the blanket primary. But if ballot access is restricted, we will soon join the rest of the nation in a crisis of voter abstention.

Adopt the progressive, democratic solution

Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) is a polling method that improves on the current system. With IRV, voters rank candidates in order of choice. If no one receives a clear majority, successive runoff counts are conducted using voters' alternate selections until someone emerges with a clear majority.

IRV offers more variety by including multiple office seekers in single-seat races, thus increasing participation on Election Day. It improves conditions for alternative parties and independents by allowing voters to cast their ballots without fear of "throwing away" their vote on a minor contender because, if this candidate is eliminated, their other ranked choices are counted. IRV also saves taxpayers the cost of a primary (and of subsidizing the selection of candidates from only two major parties) since the winnowing process occurs in a single "general" election.

Let's move forward with IRV and set an example for other states to follow.

Fred Hyde is an attorney for a pending Freedom Socialist Party ballot access case. For more information on IRV, or ballot access for minor parties, call New Freeway Hall at 722-2453.[[In-content Ad]]